The City Club of Cleveland is pleased to annouce the winners of the 2016 Hope and Stanley Adelstein Free Speech Essay Competition!
For a live reading of these winning essays, listen here or watch below:
Winners - 11th & 12th Grade
Winners - 9th & 10th Grade
Included below are the winning essays from both categories on the prompt:
Increasingly, higher education institutions require professors to post trigger warnings* on potentially upsetting material. Opponents have argued that trigger warnings inhibit intellectual and personal freedoms. Proponents have argued that failing to use trigger warnings will revictimize students who have experienced trauma and alienate them from the learning process. Discuss the role trigger warnings play in higher education with respect to our nation’s commitment to free speech.
Isabella Nilsson - 1st Place Winner, 11th & 12th Grade, Hathaway Brown
Watch For the Trigger Finger: Trigger Warnings and Their Place in Free Speech
I have been following the recent public discussion about the issue of trigger warnings and their impact on free speech with interest, and I feel that I am in some ways as qualified to weigh in as anyone. As a bisexual Latina female, I have been shocked and offended by callous statements classmates have made and texts I have read in class before—-it was hard to read Jane Eyre, for example, and not view Jane and Mr. Rochester’s treatment of his Jamaican wife, Bertha, as cruel and offensive after finishing the companion novel and critique The Wide Sargasso Sea. I’m a millennial, born in an internet generation where any group, no matter how obscure and marginalized, can be found with a few swift keystrokes and a surefooted search engine. And I am poised to begin college next year at Columbia University as an English major, where much of the national debate about trigger warnings and their place in the literary canon has taken place.
Although I do not have the academic background or years of experience of some of the professors and experts that have inveighed upon and debated this issue, I feel in many ways that this is uniquely beneficial, since the entire system of trigger warnings (I should clarify: I do not mean the trigger warnings veterans with PTSD and survivors of sexual assault request before viewing graphic material, but rather Oberlin College’s recently predominant definition of “anything that might cause trauma”) and what they represent rests upon the foundation that every voice—-no matter how young, inexperienced, or traditionally ignored—-deserves to be listened to. This seems only just. What gives me pause are other logical leaps the “trigger warning movement” (if such a disparate collection of activists and ideas can rightfully be called such) both does and does not make—-the assumption made, for example, that the demands of a single offended and frustrated voice are as important as that of an entire institutional body—-or even as important as the ideal of open intellectual discussion itself—-and that these demands must be adhered to and complied with under the looming threat of being labeled a bigot, which seems more and more often to be used as a tool for rhetorical compliance rather than “a person who hates or refuses to accept the members of a particular group,” as it is defined. I am also disappointed that advocates for trigger warnings seem to ignore the repercussions that leaving difficult books unread and challenging conversations unsaid could create—-a culture less in tune and less empathetic to the unavoidable dark and difficult side of the world, and a generation so afraid to offend that they will not debate and so zealous in the pursuit of total equality that actual mutual understanding and interaction is often ignored, or smothered.
Like many others, I followed the controversy surrounding Erica Christakis’s email about Halloween costumes at Yale. I also watched the YouTube video capturing her husband and fellow academic Nicholas Christakis confronting a group of student activists calling for his resignation. To be frank, I found it difficult to watch. A young woman shouts at a renowned professor of over 20 years to “Be quiet!”. “By sending out that email, that goes against your position as master, do you understand that?” This is a statement I cannot understand. Does acting as the steward of a dorm prevent a professor or their spouse from expressing their own, fairly tame, opinions? He tells her he does not agree. “Then why…did you accept the position? Who…hired you?” She screams, using a curse word twice. “It’s not about creating an intellectual space! It’s not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home!”As someone only familiar with Yale’s reputation as a global bastion of intellectual discussion and scientific advancement, I was unaware of such, and to say it strikes me as emblematic of the self-absorption student activists traditionally try to work against. Although I know that this video is only representative of a small part of radical student activism, I felt worried about applying to Yale after watching it, and am sure that were I a professor or student with differing views there I would feel afraid to express them. In professor Kate Manne’s op-ed for The New York Times, “Why I Use Trigger Warnings,” she states that those affected by triggers may undergo “panic attacks” and “[feel] disoriented, dizzy, and nauseated…it’s about enabling everyone’s rational engagement.” In my own opinion, a student that becomes physically ill upon reading anything that offends them may need psychological help rather than a total censoring of anything that could possibly do so.
As a reader, writer, and lover of literature, I also have issues with the idea of a trigger warning within the literary canon, as when Ovid’s Metamorphoses was petitioned to be withdrawn as required reading at Columbia University due to scenes describing rape. Although I can certainly understand an individual asking a professor to be excused from reading a book due to sexual assault in their past, the request for such a book to be removed from the syllabus entirely confuses me. No great literature is without darkness or confusion, because great literature reflects the world. Toni Morrison’s Beloved, widely considering a triumph for feminist and racial understanding, is one of the most graphic books I have ever read. Violence and injustice is apparent when we turn on the radio, watch the news, or even consider our own pasts and futures. To reject reading a novel because it falls under Oberlin College’s definition of a trigger as “anything that causes trauma” is not only to miss out on intellectual enrichment but also to inculcate yourself against understanding the world. Neither life nor art can ever be universally happy or inoffensive. To expect such may be well-intentioned, but it is also shortsighted.
Isaiah Paik - 1st Place Winner, 9th & 10th Grade, University School
The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), a trade association of six major Hollywood studios, has since the late ‘90s rated all films from “G” for general audiences to “NC-17” for adults. Beyond the numbers and letters, the MPAA also shares the reasoning behind its ratings, citing “violence,” or “language,” or “sexual content.” The Entertainment Software Rating Board does the same for video games, and the Recording Industry Association of America places stickers and warnings on potentially offensive music.
There are two important things to note: first, none of these associations or boards is a government agency; they are simply people who are fundamentally trying to protect others from harm. And second, none of these stickers or ratings is legally binding. Yes, some theaters may decide not to screen certain films for certain audiences, but fundamentally every American still has a right to enjoy any media. We see this monitoring of entertainment as healthy and acceptable, not forceful suppressive censorship, but a warning to consumers of perhaps harmful parts of the product, delivered with a cautionary, not coddling, tone.
“Trigger warnings” do the same thing. While many opponents of this new trend see it as a defacing of classical works or a product of “hypersensitivity,” as The Washington Post writes, the fact remains that trigger warnings don’t restrict or harm or stop or disturb anyone. The whole idea of a warning is not a wall to stop you, but a sign on the side of the road advising you to proceed cautiously. Warnings of any kind put the power back into the hands of the individual, because we recognize that the best person to control the car is the one at the wheel, not the people building roads or putting up signs. Just as nobody criticizes menus for warning that, say, eating undercooked fish or eggs or meat can increase the risk of illness or upset stomachs, people can still order and enjoy their food rare. So, too, do trigger warnings allow consumers to be informed and forewarned, yet still proceed.
Trigger warnings allow the reader or viewer or listener to know and anticipate what is coming and be ready, giving them back the power over their own state of mind that can be so heartlessly wrenched by traumatic material. They exist as a celebration of the fact that every individual is different, with, as Oberlin College puts it in its call to implement trigger warnings, “lives before and outside your classroom, experiences you may not expect or understand.” We need to accept that people may be deeply disturbed by certain triggers, and part of that acceptance is not to patronize or dismiss legitimate traumas. One Columbia University student, a survivor of sexual assault, was ignored and scorned by her professor for being traumatized by the graphic accounts of rape in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. She reported disengaging from the class completely and feeling alone and ignored. Trigger warnings allow everybody to proceed with knowledge and caution and still perhaps enjoy a work, rather than be incapacitated and unable to learn or grow.
Trigger warnings, which facilitate freedom and speech rather than suppressing art, ought to play a larger role in higher education. Colleges and universities represent, more than anything else in the world, the great melting pot of cultures and backgrounds, all striving for the singular pursuit of education. For this diversity of individuals to ignore triggers is to exclude parts of the population and their needs. In a world where one in five women is sexually assaulted, to not provide a warning for sensitive literature would be misogynistic and inconsiderate. This simple labeling would never limit free speech; rather, by allowing people to be aware of potentially troublesome content, trigger warnings facilitate understanding and learning by allowing those to proceed who wish to, and those who don’t to realize beforehand and be acknowledged.
Beyond the false “censorship,” opponents of trigger warnings make claims about infeasibility. Susanna Breslin, a sex blogger, described such warnings as “the dream-child of a fantasy in which the unknown can be labeled, anticipated, and controlled. What trigger warnings promise – protection – does not exist. The world is simply too chaotic, too out-of-control for every trigger to be anticipated, avoided, and defused.”
To begin, this is a poor argument for why we shouldn’t implement trigger warnings, akin to claiming that because we can never stop all crime, which is true, we should just give up and stop trying, which is ridiculous. Even if we can’t stop every instance of harm, warnings can overwhelmingly do good. But moreover, the “illusionary” promise of a labeled world is what we strive for every day. Our movies, our music, our games, our roads, our swimming pools, even our meats are labeled and designated as potentially harmful and dangerous, because we recognize that what doesn’t pose a threat to one might be deeply devastating to countless others.
But beyond that, we realize that the best way to protect everybody is not to restrict ourselves, but to alert us all to potential threats and harms so we, as the only ones who know our lives before and outside of this situation, can make educated choices to proceed or refrain. Only with adequate warnings can we truly be secure, because only then can we secure ourselves. These warnings, far from violating free speech, by labeling media as what they are can actually facilitate better enjoyment and satisfaction.